Libya -- the Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization, and Resistance, 1830-1932 by Ali Abdullatif Ahmida

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The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization, and Resistance, 1830-1932, by Ali Abdullatif Ahmida. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. xv + 144 pages. Appends. to p. 151. Notes to p. 188. Gloss. to p. 193. Refs. to p. 217. Index to p. 222. $49.50 cloth; $16.95 paper.

In the introduction to this valuable study, Ali Abdullatif Ahmida rightly states that the study of modern North Africa in general, and Libya in particular, has been dominated by scholars mostly interested in French and Italian colonial studies, British social anthropology, and, to a lesser degree, what he terms the modernization school of the United States. One result of this generally Eurocentric focus is that the rich human history of resistance and struggle for survival in Libya has tended to be lost. This is especially true of the social and political history of Libya in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period of intense change initiated by the expansion into the countryside of colonial powers, first Ottoman and then European. In an effort to broaden the focus of modern Libyan studies, the author follows the lead of other contemporary scholars of North Africa, like Colette Establet, in reexamining Libyan colonial society and history from the viewpoint of the colonized.

Beginning with the year 1830, Ahmida explores the nature of the state and political economy of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and the Fezzan, with an emphasis on the impact of Ottoman state centralization, the decline of the Saharan trade, and the penetration of European financial capital. His examination of the political economy of Cyrenaica challenges the image of pre-Sanusi Cyrenaican tribal structure as primitive, feuding, and anarchic. On the contrary, he suggests, Cyrenaica possessed an elaborate, well-organized tribal structure. And it was this structure that facilitated the spread of the Sanusi order among the tribes of the region.

The ensuing discussion of the Libyan reaction to Italian colonialism is noteworthy, most especially the author's attempt to differentiate collaborators by social class and socioeconomic background. Drawing on sources of Libyan oral history, Ahmida suggests that many collaborators were chiefs and notables without firm religious or nationalist goals, who cooperated with the Italians largely to protect tribal or economic interests. At the same time, he rightly emphasizes that collaboration was often a very complex process with many different nuances in different parts of the country.

Islam and nationalism, for example, were interpreted differently according to the socioeconomic interests of the urban classes and tribes in various parts of the country. Such diverse backgrounds were integral to factionalism in Tripolitania, which was not simply the product of personal rivalries, as some historians have argued, but instead resulted from a variety of socioeconomic forces. In contrast, the cohesion of the Cyrenaican tribes was the product of many decades of education and mobilization by the Sanusi leadership. …